Taco Bell to Cast User Avatars in TV Spot

NEW YORK Having consumers star in or even make commercials is quickly becoming old hat, but what about casting their avatars?

Taco Bell, part of Yum! Brands, is exploring this area through an online casting call for fans to create a digital representation of themselves, through an uploaded photo, then record a 15-second rationale for starring in the commercial. Three consumer avatars will then “star” in a 30-second spot promoting the idea of a “fourth meal,” a late-night snack.

The “Taco Bell TV Me” spot, crafted by Interpublic Group’s DraftFCB, will run during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 9. The fast-food chain has added a viral element by allowing users to e-mail their creations, embed them on their blog or social network or upload to YouTube.

The campaign marks Taco Bell’s first foray into consumer-generated advertising, which has gained popularity over the past year, as brands like Dove and Doritos aired consumer-created TV spots. Others like MasterCard have taken Taco Bell’s tack by inviting consumers to participate in the creative process, while relying on their agency to put together the spots.

Meanwhile, avatars have gained increasing acceptance among consumers, particularly in younger demographics, thanks to their use of blog community tools like Blogroll, virtual worlds like Second Life and even on portals such as Yahoo! American Express, CareerBuilder and Jeep have run online campaigns featuring user avatars.

“Avatars are gigantic now, not only in Second Life but in a lot of different venues,” said Scott Johnson, digital executive creative director for DraftFCB in Chicago. “Everyone under a certain age has an avatar and a lot of people older than you’d think have one too.”

Taco Bell is using technology by widget maker Gizmoz to create the 3-D talking avatars and power the online contest, which users can reach via tacobell.com.

Visitors to the site can create their avatar by uploading a digital photo of themselves. They craft their submission by customizing the avatar and background, then using their computer microphone to record their message. They can review other entries and rate them. Taco Bell said entries would be judged on “personality, originality, overall appeal and ability to express oneself.”

DraftFCB has written a spot that will use computer graphics to incorporate the winning avatars in the storyline. The agency will work with the top entrant to record a voiceover for his avatar, working off a script the agency has written. Two other avatars will have supporting, non-speaking roles.

“There’s a lot of stunts going on with consumer-generated content,” said Chris D’Amico, group creative director at DraftFCB in Irvine, Calif. “This is actually a true partnership with the consumer. Most of our consumers would love to have their 15 seconds of fame but have no outlet to get that.”

DraftFCB and Yum Brands have pursued consumer co-creation before. In May, they crafted a KFC spot that used actual videos uploaded to YouTube to promote the chain’s elimination of trans fats.

“A lot of the consumer-generated advertising is still one way,” D’Amico said. “We’re actually creating ads where there’s a two-way street in the engagement.”

Three winners will see their avatars in the spot, earn a paycheck of $179.55 or $3,725 (based on the avatar playing a supporting or starring role) and $250 in Taco Bell gift certificates.

Taco Bell is promoting the contest with a commercial created by MTV to run on that network, as well as a search and display ad campaign, which includes placements on Facebook, MSN and Pogo. It is collecting entries until July 22.